Mary Wiles, a lecturer in cinema studies at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand, is the author of Jacques Rivette, the latest volume in our Contemporary Film Directors series. In this Q&A she notes her favorite Rivette films by decade and talks about meeting the elusive director.
Q: Jacques Rivette is considered a pioneer of the French New Wave. What is the general timeline of that movement and who are some of Rivette’s contemporaries?
A: Film historians generally point to the crucial years of 1958-9 as the beginning of the film movement, which became known as the New Wave (nouvelle vague). Yet most would concede that the roots of the New Wave could be found in the ciné-clubs and film journals that had materialized in postwar Paris many years earlier. In 1949, Jacques Rivette arrived in Paris with only a suitcase and his first 16mm film, Aux quatre coins, under his arm. Later that evening, he attended a screening of Robert Bresson’s Les dames du bois de Boulogne at the Ciné-Club du Quartier Latin, which was being presented by a young film critic Maurice Schérer (who would soon become Éric Rohmer). In the months that followed, Rivette met François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard at evening screenings at the Cinémathèque–it was in this manner that the New Wave core was formed and in 1950, consolidated with the publication of Rohmer’s new film journal, La gazette du cinéma, in which Rivette published the landmark piece, “We Are Not Innocent Anymore.”1
The appearance of the first issue of Cahiers du cinéma in April 1951 launched a new era in film criticism associated with the politique des auteurs. The members of the Cahiers family, which were overseen by celebrated film critic André Bazin, were impatient to begin making films, and it was Rivette who pushed and prodded his friends to commence production on their first features. The premiere of Claude Chabrol’s Le beau Serge and Les cousins early in 1959 was the first time the term “nouvelle vague” was used in association with films directed by the Cahiers critics.2 The term gained currency when it was used to label the youthful works that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival that spring, in particular, Truffaut’s Les quatre cent coups (The Four Hundred Blows), which was awarded the prize for Best Direction.
It is well known that Rivette encountered financial difficulties during the filming of Paris
nous appartient, which was among the first of the New Wave films to go into production but the last to be released, in late 1961. He must have felt himself to be–far more so than his Cahiers colleagues–a chartered member of the “order of exiles” that the film’s central character, theater director Gérard Lenz, insists he has been inducted into. By this time, many of the films regarded as classics of the New Wave had been released, in particular, Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player; 1960), Godard’s celebrated first feature, A bout de souffle (Breathless; 1960) and also Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman; 1961), which featured his wife Anna Karina, feminine icon par excellence of the New Wave movement.
Directors who became identified as the Left Bank (rive gauche) cinema movement were working alongside the ex-Cahiers critics. Already well known as a documentarian, Alain Resnais released his first fiction feature, Hiroshima, mon amour (Hiroshima, My Love; 1959) and then his second, L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad; 1961), which both reflect the influence of Surrealism that certain film scholars, such as Alan Williams, associate with rive gauche cinema.3
Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962) and Le joli mai (1963) reflected his interests in documentary practice, experimental fiction and audiovisual montage for which the Left Bank movement was known. The most important female contemporary of the Cahiers directors, Agnès Varda directed the magnificent Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo From 5 to 7; 1962), which chronicles two transformative hours in the life of a pop singer who must await clinical test results that will reveal whether she will live or die. Varda and her husband Jacques Demy, whose low-budget film Lola was released in 1961, may both be considered rive gauche filmmakers.
The work of all these filmmakers, as Godard’s biographer Colin MacCabe notes, provides an indication of “how the New Wave was a phenomenon which reached far beyond the Cahiers’s directors.”4 Indeed, at this time other “new waves” were already surfacing across the globe, including the Japanese New Wave led by Nagisa Oshima, the British Free Cinema movement led by directors Jack Clayton, Tony Richardson, and Karel Reisz, and Direct Cinema pioneered by Canadian Michel Brault and American documentarians Robert Drew, Albert and David Maysles, and D. A. Pennebaker.5
Q: One of my favorite parts of the Contemporary Film Directors series is the director interview included in each volume. What were the circumstances surrounding your 1999 interview with Jacques Rivette?
A: In the summer of 1999, I was staying in Pariswith a close friend, Christophe, doing
research for my doctoral dissertation on Rivette. After making the rounds of libraries and
museums, it occurred to me that I should try to make contact with this elusive director, Jacques Rivette, who for most American film students remains a myth. I gathered my courage and even wrote out a brief script in French before I phoned him at home. I fully expected to get an answering machine on the other end and was prepared to recite my script. Just imagine my stunned surprise when Rivette actually picked up his phone and answered it that fateful morning!! Somehow, I managed to collect myself and arrange a rendezvous with him at Café de la Bastille, which was close by to where he was living at the time. I spent the next few days preparing notes, writing out questions in French, shopping for a high-powered tape recorder at FNAC, in order to brace myself for the interview with this internationally celebrated director. The big day finally arrived, and by then, I was overwrought–little more than a bundle of nerves–but ready to go. My friend, Christophe, graciously agreed to accompany me to the interview to provide me with much needed moral support and help with the tape recorder. I insisted that we arrive early and wait (actually I had been so nervous on the telephone with Rivette that I was afraid that I might have misunderstood the time). We arrived at the café at 10am in the morning and waited together.
I was worried that Rivette wouldn’t be able to spot us in a busy café, so I had brought with me my personalized, photocopied volume of Jacques Rivette: La règle du jeu, which
had a large, laminated photo of Rivette on the front cover. As the hours passed, my eyes remained glued to the door of the café and when Rivette finally arrived right on time at 3pm that afternoon, I recognized him immediately. I was struck by his brisk, determined gait as he entered the café and the unkempt shock of curly grey hair that reminded me of photographs that I had seen of Jean Cocteau. Although it was a very hot summer afternoon, Rivette was formally dressed–in a dark blue jacket that remained on throughout the interview. Initially, he was courteous and careful. He took his seat across the table from me and was immediately attentive to the subject of our conversation, the films, patiently allowing me to read through the questions that I had painstakingly prepared. He must have sensed how nervous I was, as he was very gracious and good-humored in his manner toward me, which put me at ease (as much as would have been possible that day!!). Rivette was engaging and lively as an interlocutor. His raucous laugh was heart-felt and infectious, and by the end of the interview, which lasted several hours, I felt as though I had been chatting with a close friend all along.
As the afternoon light faded, it occurred to me that I should ask him to sign the copy of La règle du jeu that was resting on the table between us, but I suddenly hesitated. How would such a request be received by this maverick film director, known as “le veilleur” (the watchman) of cinema around the world? Yet I knew very well that such an opportunity was not likely to present itself again, that this could be the sole conversation that we would ever share, and so at the risk of looking like a neophyte American tourist, I put aside my pride and asked Rivette for his “autograph.” I would like to share his inscription, “En vous priant de m’excuser d’avoir été un si ‘reluctant’ interlocuteur, Trés amicalement. Rivette.” (Please accept my sincerest apologies for having been such a ‘reluctant’ interlocutor. Warmest wishes. Rivette.) This treasured memento never fails to invoke that unforgettable afternoon.
Q: Do you have a favorite Rivette film?
A: For me, singling out a favorite film from the Rivette oeuvre is too challenging a task; however, I will respond to this by pointing to my favorites decade by decade.
1960s: Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us; 1961). While Paris nous appartient
may not be his best film, those who read my interview with Rivette will know that it is, nonetheless, one of my favorites (even though Rivette remains highly critical of it!!). It was during my study of this film in a postgraduate seminar with Professor Maureen Turim that I began to think about and work seriously on Rivette. It provided me with the key to understanding the intricate relation between theater and cinema in all of Rivette’s films.
1970s: Céline et Julie vont en bateau–Phantom Ladies Over Paris (Céline and Julie Go Boating; 1974). I greatly admire this film, which remains the most well-known and well-loved film in the oeuvre. I am tempted to attribute the film’s sustained popularity to its feminist story, which explores different dimensions of female friendship in its depiction of a librarian and a magician, who both witness a bizarre melodrama being staged within a haunted house. Its pleasurable appeal to audiences notwithstanding, the film, in my view, remains as important to the history of world cinema as Jean Renoir’s La règle du jeu (Rules of the Game) or Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
1980s: I will insist on Le Pont du Nord, even though I am tempted to select the magnificent La bande des quatre, a film that returns to and reworks the occult themes and dimensions of theatrical and cinematic scripting explored in Céline et Julie. Le Pont du Nord is often overlooked within the Rivette oeuvre. It can be understood as either a modern-day ballad or a political allegory that chronicles the perambulations of two women, Baptiste (Pascale Ogier) and Marie (Bulle Ogier), within a mythic, timeless Paris. The film’s exhilarating opening sequence that shows Baptiste arriving in Paris on her motorbike sweeps us into its whirlwind of music and movement.
I will confess that my own arrival in Parisas a young film student virtually coincided
with the 1982 release of Le Pont du Nord–the title seemed to be on everyone’s lips at the time. I still find a source of identification in the errant Baptiste, her rebellion against unknown conspiratorial forces, her wanderlust, her flair for adventure, her desire for a savvy mentor and friend to accompany her in her odyssey across the cityscape. I will only add that Le Pont du Nord is a film that I would love to teach because I feel that my students would understand the film and enjoy it, as I did, but sadly there is still no subtitled version in English available.
1990s: Haut bas fragile (Up Down Fragile; 1995). This is a film that Rivette has
confessed that he also likes a lot. It chronicles the everyday lives of three Parisian women: Ninon (Nathalie Richard) who works as a delivery girl, a librarian Ida (Laurence Côte), and Louise (Marianne Denicourt), who is recovering from an accident that left her in a coma. The film unfolds gradually like the express parcel to which its title refers, reinventing the music and dance numbers associated not only with Henry Miller’s taxi-dance hall of the 1920s but also with one of my favorite film genres–the Hollywood musical. Haut bas fragile is gentle, beautiful, enchanting, and irresistible.
2000s: Histoire de Marie et Julien (The Story of Marie and Julien; 2003). Rivette’s sustained interest in magic and fantasy as sources of female empowerment resurfaces in
this recent film from its source in the supernatural feminine cosmology of Les filles du feu. The film’s love story between Marie (Emmanuelle Béart), a revenante (a spirit who comes back), and a clocksmith Julien (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) is taken from the script of Rivette’s phantom film Marie et Julien (1975), which was to have been the first film in the tetralogy, Scènes de la vie parallèle. Borrowing from the Celtic tale of Grainne and Diarmuid, the film invokes the dreamlike ambiance of Alain Resnais’s L’année dernière à Marienbad or Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour. In my view, this unique and amazing film has not received the critical accolades it merits.
Q: If you had to recommend two films to a Rivette novice—one to see first and one to avoid—which films would you recommend?
A: I introduce my undergraduate film students to Rivette with Paris nous appartient, as it touches on so many of the themes and formal concerns that continue to surface in his work throughout his career. Although it is certainly not his most accessible film, it is one of his most important. For the future film scholar, this film is crucial not only to an understanding of the oeuvre and also 1960s filmmaking in France. In my postgraduate course that focuses on the relation between women, theory, and film, I often screen Céline et Julie vont en bateau or alternately, Haut bas fragile. Both films are among the most accessible in the oeuvre and always a great pleasure to watch and re (watch); each addresses dimensions of female friendship, power and class dynamics, as well as the relation of theatrical performance and cinema in a manner that will intrigue even the Rivette novice.
With Rivette, one would never need to point out a film to avoid, as there are numerous films that are virtually impossible–even for the most dedicated filmgoer–to see. L’amour fou (1969), Out 1: Noli me tangere (1970), and Out 1: Spectre (1974) are only available for viewing at select archives in Europe and North America. Students and filmgoers who do not have immediate access to film archives will avoid such films of necessity!!
Q: What was the most interesting thing that you learned in researching the book and/or (re-) watching the films?
A: When I returned home from Paris in late summer of 1999 with memories of
my inaugural meeting with Rivette fresh on my mind, I recommenced work on my
thesis chapter on the 1970s tetralogy, Scènes de la vie parallèle. As I watched and re-watched Noroît—a film that many characterize as the director’s most opaque, Rivette’s observations on the tremendous importance of Cocteau in shaping his film career resonated in the back of my mind. Such reflections, accompanied by careful review of Cocteau’s biography and numerous email exchanges with musicologists Dr Rose Theresa and Dr Jeongwon Joe, led me to conclude that the film could, indeed, be Rivette’s homage to his close friend and mentor Cocteau. From Cocteau’s biography, I learned that shortly before his death he had disclosed plans for a filmed version of Debussy’s impressionist opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. I remember how exciting it was in the months that followed to study the opera libretto of Pelléas et Mélisande and suddenly see its mise-en-scène surface before my eyes in that of Noroît. This discovery recharged my research on Rivette, and remains at the core of my work on theatricality and cinema in the work of this director. I will only add that although Rivette never specifically mentioned Debussy’s opera or Cocteau’s unfinished film version of it in the interview at Café de la Bastille, it was without doubt my conversation with Rivette that led me to write about the film and the tetralogy from a Coctelian perspective.
1 Jacques Rivette’s text, originally titled “Nous ne sommes plus innocents,” appeared in the first issue of La gazette du cinéma in 1950. The English translation by Emiliano Battista was first published – together with a German translation and the original text – in the artist’s book Reisestipendiumsvideo (Travel Stipend Video) by Peter Müller in 2011. It is reprinted with the kind permission of Peter Müller and Emiliano Battista in issue 61 of Senses of Cinema. http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2011/feature-articles/we-are-not-innocent-anymore
2 It is important to remember that the label nouvelle vague (new wave) was not initially used to describe films or filmmakers. The expression first appeared in a feature
article in the weekly journal L’Express in October, 1957, where it was used to characterize the postwar generation known for its “new moral values.” See Michel Marie’s excellent description of the evolution of the expression in The French New Wave: An Artistic School, trans. Richard Neupert (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), pp. 5-25.
3 See Alan Williams’s detailed discussion of the Left Bank School in Republic of Images:A History of French Filmmaking (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 365-67.
4 Colin MacCabe, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70 (London: Bloomsbury, 2003),
5 See Marie’s discussion of the international legacy of the New Wave in The French New Wave:An Artistic School, pp. 127-31; see also Geoffrey Noel-Smith, Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960s (New York: Continuum, 2008), pp 112-176.